Compromise reached over habitat protections

Photo of the Valdez Duck Flats.
The Valdez Duck Flats is one of the largest salt marshes in Prince William Sound. This habitat is home to 52 species of marine birds, 8 species of waterfowl, 18 species of shorebirds, and other songbirds and birds of prey. Salmon, harbor seals, and sea otters feed in this rich estuary. The other sensitive area is Solomon Gulch Hatchery, which incubates 270 million pink salmon eggs and 2 million coho salmon each year.

Sensitive areas guaranteed swift protection when threatened by an oil spill

Conflicting views over the timing associated with protecting two areas in Port Valdez in the event of an oil spill has been resolved. Rapid protections for two environmentally sensitive areas, a large salt marsh known as the Valdez Duck Flats and the Solomon Gulch Hatchery, are guaranteed when more than 5 barrels (210 gallons) of oil are spilled from the Valdez Marine Terminal. The protections will also be deployed if a spill occurs and the amount of oil in the water is unknown or if a lesser amount is spilled but the source is not secured.

The resulting agreement also means spill responders will gain important environmental data that will improve oil spill planning and response for Port Valdez.

Diverging opinions led to appeal

In 2017, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, or ADEC, approved an update to Alyeska Pipeline Service Company’s oil spill contingency plan for the Valdez Marine Terminal. One of the changes modified a decision “matrix,” which was a tool created after a 1994 oil spill to help responders decide the timing of when to deploy protective oil spill boom for the duck flats and hatchery, both east of the terminal.

The 2017 version of the matrix potentially delayed protections for these two environmentally sensitive areas. In that version, if the oil was moving west, the matrix did not require immediate deployment of the protections, even in the case of a 2.5-million-gallon spill from the terminal.

Deploying the protective boom takes time, up to 10 or more hours depending on the weather. Based on the Council’s analysis of the 2017 version of the matrix, deployment of the protective boom could have been delayed up to 36 hours.

The Council was concerned that the oil would contaminate the two sites if the incoming tide moved the oil east, which would be expected every 12 hours. The Council appealed this approval, along with the City of Valdez, and the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation. The Valdez Fisheries Development Association filed a separate appeal, but both appeals were eventually joined.

Collaboration leads to consensus

Alyeska, ADEC, and the groups who appealed reached a consensus after a years-long collaborative process.

The compromise called for gathering information about the weather in the vicinity of the terminal. To accomplish this, the groups agreed that a weather buoy would be placed at the Valdez Marine Terminal. The new buoy records wind speed, gusts, and direction; wave height and direction; and current speed and direction.

Preliminary data shows that an easterly movement of winds and waves is common.

Better data on variable weather conditions in Port Valdez

Photo of new buoy deployed in 2019.
Local mariners know that the weather on the south side of Port Valdez can vary significantly from the north side, however scientific data has never been available to confirm this. Weather forecasts are typically focused on the north side, since Valdez and most of the region’s population is located there. Find out more about these buoys and the data that is helping prevent and prepare for potential oil spills: New weather buoys establish PORTS® information for Valdez, Alaska

A second weather buoy was placed near the Valdez Duck Flats, co-funded by a grant from the City of Valdez. Both weather buoys were donated to the Council by Fairweather Science.

Compromise means safe oil transportation in Prince William Sound

In over 30 years of existence, this was the first time that the Council appealed a decision by ADEC to this level. The appeal lasted almost three years and the Council considers the result a success for all those involved.

“These may seem like insignificant changes, but they add up,” said Linda Swiss, the Council’s contingency plan project manager. “Part of our job is to make sure minor changes do not become a major problem. We all share the goal of keeping oil out of the water and off the land and to ensure that environmentally sensitive areas are protected should prevention measures fail.”

Inoperable radar in Prince William Sound concerns Council

No plans for repair in near future

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service, or VTS, which monitors the location of vessels in Prince William Sound, has been operating without radar in recent months.

Screenshot of AIS system
This screenshot is an example of how AIS maps show the location, speed, and direction of vessels, among other details. However, smaller objects or vessels do not appear in the system.

The Coast Guard monitors traffic in busy ports around the country through these VTS offices. The VTS in Prince William Sound usually operates with a combination of Automatic Identification System, or AIS; VHF radio; cameras; and radar.

AIS is a map-based online monitoring system required to be on board larger vessels. Equipment streams the vessel’s position, along with its name, course, speed, heading, and destination to the system. VHF radio is used for two-way communications with vessels.

These various systems are integrated together and the information is relayed to the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit VTS in Valdez.

Radar is an integral part of the Coast Guard’s monitoring of vessels in Prince William Sound as many small vessels and hazards only appear on radar.

Based on a National Transportation Safety Board report on the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster, lack of radar is considered a contributing factor to the spill.

U.S. Coast Guard Commander Patrick Drayer joined a Council meeting earlier this fall. In answer to questions from Council members, Commander Drayer noted that all three radar systems in Prince William Sound are obsolete.

Drayer explained that the original manufacturers are no longer in business and that original design drawings are not available. Attempts to fabricate new parts to repair the existing equipment have failed, as the parts did not fit or were not compatible. He also noted that this problem is affecting systems around the country.

Not all vessels use AIS

Many of the vessels in Prince William Sound do not have, and are not required to have, expensive AIS transmitters on board. Only vessels larger than 20 meters (approximately 65 feet) and some passenger vessels* must broadcast their location. Smaller vessels such as commercial fishing vessels, recreational boats, or kayaks may not carry AIS equipment. AIS can also miss smaller objects floating in the water, such as icebergs.

In an October 2020 letter to Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and Congressman Don Young, the Council asked for help to secure funds to replace the equipment.
“Based on discussions with the Coast Guard, all of these radar systems have been inoperable for at least ten months,” the letter stated. “Based on limited funding and resources it will take considerable time to repair and eventually replace this aging and inoperable equipment. In addition to the Council’s maritime safety concerns over the lack of Coast Guard radar capability in Prince William Sound, there are also homeland/national security implications of such radar inoperability.”
“The Council is concerned that adequate resources are not yet committed to these priorities,” the letter continued.
All three members of Alaska’s Congressional Delegation responded to the Council’s letter by writing to the Commandant of the Coast Guard requesting information regarding how this problem can be addressed. The Council plans to continue to monitor and advise on this important issue.

* Correction from print edition of The Observer: The original version of this article mistakenly left out that some passenger vessels smaller than 65 feet are also required to broadcast their location, depending on the capacity of the vessel.

Potential regulation changes to undergo extended public comment period

Tanker at berth.

Before the state’s oil spill regulations are modified, any proposed changes will undergo an extended public comment period, according to Jason Brune, commissioner for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Beginning last fall, the department asked the public for input on Alaska’s statutes and regulations covering oil spill prevention and response.

Brune joined the Council during a September meeting of the Board of Directors to discuss potential changes from these comments. The Council was encouraged to hear a promise from the commissioner that any proposed changes will be given more than the required 30-day public comment period.

During the public scoping, the Council raised a number of concerns which it still holds including: that this process, concluded earlier this year, was too broad for effective input; that this approach shifted the burden to the public to justify and defend these regulations and statutes; and that the department’s capacity for this review will be limited due to reduced staff and drastically reduced funding in the coming years.

The Council is also concerned about transparency both during the process and now after the scoping has closed as the commissioner noted that the department has had follow-up communications with industry and other stakeholders which are not part of the public record.

Industry drills test equipment and personnel

Drills and exercises conducted last year in Prince William Sound continued to test the new vessels and equipment brought in by the new spill response contractor, Edison Chouest, in 2018. In addition, the year’s drills helped train the crews of the tugs and tankers on various aspects of spill prevention and response in Prince William Sound.

Council staff and a monitor from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation observe a June drill while maintaining a safe distance between each other. 

During the year, mariners practiced towing tankers, attaching tether lines between tankers and tugs, deploying and operating oil spill response equipment in both open water and near the shoreline, communicating between command posts in Valdez and Anchorage, and many other response activities.

Tracking lessons over time

The Council observes many of these drills and exercises and issues an annual summary of the previous year’s activities and observations. These reports track the history of spill preparedness and response by Alyeska’s SERVS and the associated shippers.

For example, this report notes that in the past few years, responders have become more proficient at deploying protections for the Valdez Duck Flats, an estuary which is home to numerous species of wildlife. The report recommends similar training for the nearby Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery, another area that is particularly sensitive to oil contamination.

Improving spill response

The report also included the Council’s recommendations for future exercises. Two of the suggestions would increase safety: using full personal protection equipment, or PPE, during some exercises; and conducting more drills at night.

The PPE recommendation stemmed from a 2018 exercise where Council staff observed responders struggling to communicate via radio while wearing a respirator, which some responders removed. During a real event, respirators could be needed in contaminated areas due to hydrocarbon fumes in the air.

The Council has supported conducting drills during hours of darkness for the last several years. On the shortest days of December in Prince William Sound, daylight only lasts for 6 hours or less. Responders need to practice finding and recovering oil in the dark to be able to mount an effective spill response in winter.

The reports help the Council improve the spill prevention and response system. Analysis of these reports over time can help identify operational issues and help improve the prevention and response system.

COVID-19 affecting drills and exercises in 2020

This report covers drills and exercises conducted in 2019. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the normal schedule. Drills and exercises have continued, although they have been modified to accommodate safe pandemic practices.

More details in the full report:

2019 Drill Monitoring Report (0.2 MB)

Skip to content